Rahm Emanuel expressed the prevailing wisdom in American politics when he said, "Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before." This sentiment is becoming the essence of modern politics. Nothing matters in and of itself. Crises are tools to be used to an end. Many politicians use the news not to form opinions or gather facts, but to bring attention to themselves and the changes they wish to make. If the first commandment is to never let a crisis go to waste, the second is like unto it: never let a tragedy go to waste.
Trayvon Martin's death has captivated the American people. We all feel for a family going through the death of a teenager, and we all want to see justice done, whatever that may mean in this case. Because of the emotional impact of the case, it is fertile ground for manipulation and exploitation. Much has been made of special interest groups like the NAACP and the NRA and their efforts to focus public opinion about this case on their causes.The NAACP wants to portray this case as racial profiling of an innocent black teen. The NRA tries to show that this is a case of sensationalized media hype. These efforts to change the narrative should not surprise us. The very purpose of an advocacy group is to use any means possible to promote a legislative end. The NRA and the NAACP exist to promote their causes in the public square, and when news stories capture the nations interest, they channel that energy into action. Concerns about exploitation of Trayvon Martin by special interest groups are overblown. These organizations are simply performing their function in a time of media frenzy. What should surprise and anger citizens is not the special interests, but the shameless abuse of the case by politicians in our nation. In their eagerness to harness public opinion, they seem to have forgotten the tragedy itself. Trayvon Martin, totally innocent or not, was a young teenager with his entire life ahead of him. His family has lost a son and a brother. It is a disgrace to our political system that his death has become an exercise in political point-scoring. The drama began when President Obama first commented on the issue. His statement was fairly innocuous, highlighting the tragedy and the importance of seeing justice done.
Obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. When I think about this boy I think about my own kids and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together, federal, state and local to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.
The end of the statement caused a media uproar.
But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon. If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and we will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
The president did not explicitly take a side in the controversy. He simply noted that he could empathize with the parents. Some read into his statement the issue of racial profiling. This is where the fiasco really started. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich waded into the controversy with a statement decrying Obama's statement. On the Sean Hannity show, he said:
It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background. Is the President suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be ok because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian-American of if he’d been a Native American. At some point we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American. It is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.
In essence, Gingrich is saying that he finds it appalling that the President is (in his opinion) trying to use the case to push an agenda. Ironically, Gingrich is doing the very same thing. He is magnifying the racial issues in this case by taking offense at the President's statements. He is taking the political point-scoring to the next level. Gingrich says it is all about the tragedy of a young man who is now dead. However, the effect of his statement is to take the focus off the tragedy and place it on the partisan squabbles that divide our country. In complaining about division, he is simply causing greater division. Politics is not a game. Politicians and government officials exist to defend justice and secure the good of the people, not quarrel with one another in an attempt to look better than their opponents. On the Hugh Hewitt Show, before dropping out of the race, Rick Santorum offered similar comments.
This is an unfortunate situation where the President has taken a horrible tragedy, where someone did a heinous act, and that the authorities did not, did another horrible act in not following and prosecuting that to the fullest extent of the law. And then, his, again, politicizing it, this is again not what presidents of the United States do. What the president of the United States should do is try to bring people together, not use these types of horrible and tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America.
The President's comments may or may not have been intended to address the racial side of this case. However, both Gingrich and Santorum added fuel to the fire, making the tragedy a political game of tug-of-war. The President's senior advisor David Plouffe may have put it best when he discussed the Republican candidates' comments and stated that the Trayvon Martin case had become a circus.
I don’t think there’s very many people in America that would share that reaction. You know, this is – this Republican primary at some points has been more of a circus show, a clown show.
His comment could be extended to the dialogue of both parties on national tragedies. Our leaders are so concerned with using the latest tragedy or crisis that they become detached from the real emotions and issues of the tragedy. The Trayvon Martin case is simply a venue in which to make opponents look bad. Trayvon Martin's family cares most about seeing justice done for Trayvon, and ensuring such a tragedy never happens again. They probably did not care whether Obama, Santorum, or Gingrich was most successful at using their son's name to gain political favor. Americans must see through these efforts to score political points. May Trayvon Martin's legacy be a commitment to a political system that seeks justice, not victory.